Explaining research without jargon

UQ - 3MT ThreeMinuteThesis TM_0In 2007, Alan Lawson, then dean of the graduate school at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, was looking for a way to morph the popular “elevator pitch” he had seen in the business world into a useful academic exercise. The practice, which challenges young entrepreneurs to explain their business plan to potential funders in less than 30 seconds, could help graduate students improve their oral presentation skills, he reasoned. But while a half-minute elevator ride may be all the time one needs to pitch a company, Lawson didn’t think it was enough time to describe a research project. The perfect amount of time for science, it turned out, had been staring him in the face every morning.

Queensland was in the middle of a drought at the time, and water agencies had started to distribute waterproof egg timers for people to use in their showers to help them reduce their daily wash to less than three minutes. As Lawson dutifully used his egg timer to shorten his showers to the allotted time, he realized that three minutes was a sweet spot “that would allow people to seriously present a reasonably rigorous academic justification for their work [to nonspecialists], while leaving time to convey the excitement of doing it,” he says. In September 2008, Lawson hosted the first ever Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, drawing 160 graduate students from various disciplines across the university.

By the time the second 3MT rolled around at Queensland the following year, administrators at other Australian universities had become interested, and in 2010, the first Trans-Tasman 3MT competition drew contestants from 33 institutions across Australia and New Zealand. Today, 3MT has mushroomed to an annual event at hundreds of universities around the globe, and in recent years, other oral research competitions have gained popularity, including FameLab, which is now held in more than 20 countries.

Click here to read more from this article by Rina Shaikh-Lesko in the August 2, 2014 issue of TheScientist.

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